“For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:26-31).
It is a characteristic of our times that many who value virtues such as mercy and kindness do not value other virtues such as uprightness and integrity.
We see this kind of thinking when those who condemn immoral behavior or religious false teachings are accused of being unkind and unloving. We see it also in modern ideas about God. People like to think of Him as loving, merciful, and forgiving; but they don’t like to think of Him as holy and righteous, threatening to punish all who transgress His commandments.
The trouble with these notions about God is that they are not based on His own revelation of Himself and His nature in the Bible. God tells us there that love, mercy, kindness, holiness, justice, and righteousness are all attributes of His. The same God Who is perfect love is also perfect justice; His justice is not inconsistent with His love. Those who reject any of God’s attributes end up with a distorted view of God. Their idea of a loving God is one Who is indulgent about sin and Who overlooks sinful behavior because they think it’s unfair to demand perfection.
Our passage in Hebrews brings us face to face with the holiness and justice of God. It warns sinners of divine “judgment,” “fiery indignation,” and “vengeance.” The prospect that it lays before us is so terrifying that we might be tempted to turn the page and look for something about God that is more to our liking.
But it wouldn’t be right to do that, for this is God Himself speaking to us. And it isn’t necessary for us to go elsewhere in the Bible to find something about divine love and forgiveness. It’s right here. Notice what it is that brings down God’s wrath on the sinner. It isn’t taking God’s name in vain in a moment of anger, speaking an unkind word, or coveting something that belongs to someone else. It’s trampling the Son of God underfoot, despising the blood that Christ shed on the cross, and insulting the Holy Spirit. In other words, it’s rejecting Christ and despising the Gospel that exposes the sinner to God’s wrath. That’s the willful sinning that the writer is talking about here.
The sins that we commit in thought, word, and deed are offenses against God’s holiness. His justice requires that there be punishment for them. But God Who is holy and just is also loving toward sinners, and doesn’t want to punish us. He devised a plan by which He could spare us from His terrible wrath and still satisfy His divine justice. He sent His own beloved Son to suffer His wrath in our place. That’s what we see especially during the season of Lent as we follow the Savior through His passion and death. On Calvary we behold the holiness and justice of God and also His great love for us sinners.
For the sinner who rejects and despises Christ “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” But for the penitent sinner who trusts in Christ there remains that one sacrifice, the blood of Jesus Christ His Son that cleanses us from all sin.
John Klatt is pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Loveland, Colorado.